How does a drummer playing Bipity-Bop-Bop-BAM-ting-Bop-ting-ting-BAM-bop help a band stay in time?


A great drummer can play 3/4 time with his foot, 4/4 with one hand and 3/8 with the other. How do the other musicians know where the 1 is?

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Well first I’d say that drummers will play maximum 2 time signatures, not 3, at once. “Polyrhythm,” it’s called, as you probably already know. It’s probably possible to play 3 or more, but I’ve not personally heard that done by an individual, and it would probably not be practical.

In bands playing polyrhythms, the 4/4 beat is usually dominant. In a band like Meshuggah, for example, hi-hat/snare is usually playing in 4. That’s how the band knows when to play.

In other words, the musicians agree ahead of time on which time signature to “follow.” The other(s) are just layered on top of it.

I’m a drummer but not a music theorist so please forgive any lack of eloquence in that explanation.

As an addendum: in your example, all 3 time signatures would hit a downbeat, a “1,” every 12 quarter note beats. Regardless of which time signature you’re objectively “following,” you can “hear” the music in 12/4 or 24/8. The “official” time signature is ultimately an artificial visualization of what’s going on.

Yeah, if it is a non standard rhythm there’s almost certainly an emphasized beat to signal the start or end of the pattern (like the BAM in the question). There are also other non audible cues used by musicians such as dipping the neck of an instrument, a look, a nod, to communicate entrances, solos, etc.